How Does Anxiety Affect Your Brain?

The Purpose of Anxiety and What's Really Happening in Our Heads

By Amanda Turecek - December 18, 2023

“I just wish I wasn’t so anxious all the time!”

Ever catch yourself saying this? Anxiety is a natural human response to threats in the environment—a lifesaver to help us think fast, move quickly, and fight or fling ourselves away from danger. 

When people have anxiety disorders however, they experience constant nervousness, trouble sleeping, unexplained aches or pains, and spiraling thoughts when confronted with dangers that either aren’t there or are unlikely.

Feeling anxious about an upcoming test can be helpful in that it inspires you to sit down and study. Being fearful of entering a grocery store because interacting with strangers makes your heart want to explode can be a sign of a disorder. 

Let’s talk about how untreated anxiety can affect the organ that affects it all—the brain.

What Happens When You Get Anxious?

Anxiety triggers the sympathetic nervous system, flooding our bodies with the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to help prepare ourselves to face danger. Our heart rate picks up to pump more blood through the body and our breath quickens.

Once the danger passes, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to relax us, releasing acetylcholine, slowing our heart rate, and bringing us back down to earth.

Brains with anxiety disorders, however, may not realize the threat has passed and continue operating in a stress state. More adrenaline and cortisol floods their systems, and everything quickly feels overwhelming.

Left alone without treatment, those with anxiety disorders risk living restrictive, inauthentic lives out of irrational fear.

Anxiety, The Amygdala, and The Hippocampus

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped part of the brain that manages emotion. Its priority is fear, meaning it plays a heavy hand in how we respond to anxiety. Persistent anxiety has been shown to increase the size of someone’s amygdala, making anxious responses more intense the next time they happen.

The hippocampus is a key part of the limbic system. It’s an S-shaped part of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and spatial awareness. 

When the hippocampus and amygdala work together, you get memories shrouded in emotion. For example, the amygdala may pick up on a scent in the air and attach it to a memory you had years ago, leaving you with a warm feeling in your stomach. (Or a rush of embarrassment you thought you never had to feel again.) In people with trauma, this can look like avoiding places that look or feel like the place you experienced the traumatic event. 

The hippocampus is one of the most affected areas of the brain when comparing those with and without disordered anxiety. A damaged hippocampus can lead to trouble forming new memories. With anxiety running the show, the hippocampus prioritizes anxiety-inducing memories over happier ones, respectively saving enough space for each.

If you can’t hold onto happy memories and are bogged down by fearful ones, life can start feeling pointless. This is why untreated anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with depression.

Weak Connections to the Prefrontal Cortex

Persistent anxiety can compromise how well the amygdala connects with the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for logical processing and decision-making. Weak connections between these three points can feel like having intense worry or agitation but struggling to come up with a reason for it. Without a fully functional prefrontal cortex, responding to the threat logically becomes difficult and panic becomes more likely. 

Without appropriate treatment, many people can turn to drugs and alcohol. While this may help “numb” out feelings in the short-term, they worsen symptoms overall. If you think you might be struggling with debilitating anxiety, consider working with a mental health counselor. Together we can take anxiety out of the driver’s seat and put you back in it. Contact us today if we can help at RAFT Counseling!

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